Tag Archives: differentiation

The chicken nugget experiment- a free downloadable lesson

A free downloadable lesson based around a video of British chef, Jamie Oliver, demonstrating exactly what does go into cheap chicken nuggets to a group of American children. It’s pretty revolting, but the children reckon it’s ‘awesome’..and there’s a surprise at the end.

The lesson is at two levels, Lower Intermediate (A2+) and  Upper Intermediate (B2+). Both versions introduce a set of vocabulary for talking about junk food, and both have a variety of discussion tasks and questions. The lower level version also introduces some functional language for giving opinions and agreeing and disagreeing, while the higher level version looks at how to use contrast markers, although, even though, despite etc.

Download PDF here: ELT Resourceful-The Chicken Nugget Experiment-LowerInt

Download PDF here: ELT Resourceful-The Chicken Nugget Experiment-UpperInt


Filed under Downloadable lesson materials, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Grammar, Speaking, Vocabulary

How we can use minimal pairs to help L2 listeners to decode what they hear.

At the weekend I was lucky enough to catch Sam Shephard’s lively session on pronunciation at the NATECLA conference in Liverpool. His session focused mostly on productive pronunciation, but as I was presenting on the same day on decoding skills for listening, I found myself thinking more about the role of pronunciation work in decoding- and specifically about minimal pairs.

When I first saw this advert for Berlitz language schools on youtube, I was struck with how clever it is.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sk9ukdMkN2c]

But, apart from in this rather specific context, how important is it really that learners can understand or pronounce the difference between //θ/  / and /s /?

Minimal pairs, minimal importance?

It seems that misunderstandings in natural speech are rarely caused by the mispronunciation of one sound. Usually context gives us enough of a clue to understand what the speaker is trying to say. Adam Brown gives a good example in his 1995 article, Minimal pairs, minimal importance?:

‘Singapore is one of the busiest ports in the world. However, it is a tiny island (the size of the Isle of Man) with a population of three million. Consequently, land is at a premium, and there are no animal farms. The nearest most Singaporeans come to sheep is mutton curry. In short, if Singaporeans don’t pronounce the distinction between ship and sheep clearly, the chances of misunderstanding are minimal: they are almost certain to mean ship.’

Similarly, Jenkins (2000) found that /θ/ rarely caused misunderstandings between NNSs, and she also points out that many native speaker varieties don’t use it anyway, often using /t/ or /f/.

So should we chuck out the minimal pairs work?

Can minimal pairs help L2 listeners decode more effectively?

Well, according to John Field (2008) there is evidence that L2 listeners process in words, but that ‘many of the matches they make are rough approximations that do not correspond exactly to the sounds that the listener heard.’ In other words an inability to recognise certain phonemes is leading to learners making inaccurate guesses about words, which in turn could lead them quite seriously off track as they apply top down skills to their guesses. For example, the listener who hears ‘screams’ instead of ‘screens’ is likely to go quite a way off track.

It is certainly true that context could help here- but that is making the assumption that learners are able to use their top down skills effectively when, Field and others argue, learners who are unable to decode effectively, usually can’t hold onto enough meaning to start stringing ideas together.

So, therefore, there is certainly an argument for using some minimal pair work, especially at lower levels- though we probably do need to be quite selective about which phonemes we choose to focus on.

Functional load

Sounds that carry a high functional load are used to distinguish between a significant number of words. The opposite is sounds which carry a low functional load. For example, Brown (1995 above) says that the only minimal pairs in English for /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ are:

Confusion/Confucian, azure/Asher, mesher/measure , allusion/Aleutian, glacier/glazier

I think we can probably all agree that the likelihood of students even using most of these words is pretty low, never mind getting them confused!

Minimal pairs with a high functional load would include:

/e/ and /ae/ , /p/ and /b/, /e/ and /I/

A full list is available in Brown 1988

Individual needs

With a monolingual group, it should be fairly straightforward to find out which pairs are causing the most problems. A book like Learner English can be helpful, or simple observation. Obviously with a mixed nationality group, tricky minimal pairs are likely to vary, but there are some which seem to be difficult for speakers of many different languages, and have a high functional load, such as /e/ and /ae/ and /ae/ and /ʌ/

Activity ideas

The first point to make is that ideally, learners should be able to see the link between the minimal pair work and what they are listening to. For example, if a number of learners have heard ‘scream’ instead of ‘screen’, that would be a perfect opportunity to do some minimal pair work on /m/ and /n/.

The second point is not to overload the learners. I wouldn’t suggest working on more than one pair of sounds at a time.

The third point (made by Field) is that ideally words used should be relatively frequent and of roughly equal frequency. So bin and pin would be OK, but perhaps not blade and played.

There are lots of ideas for working on minimal pairs (some of which came up in Sam’s session, mentioned above)

Some different ways for learners to show they can differentiate the two sounds:

  • Put the two words in each pair on different sides of the board and learners  put up their left hand/right hand according to which they think they hear.
  • Alternatively, learners can physically move to the right or left side of the classroom.
  • Put the words on cards and learners grab the right card, either in small groups with little cards, or with big (sturdy) cards, you can haver learners line up so one from each team is in front of the board and they race to grab the right word from there.
  • For a more sedate activity, learners write down what they think they hear.
  • Learners say if the words you say are the same or different.

Obviously all the activities above can be done with a learner providing a model, but then it becomes oral work, rather than listening, and they will need help to know how to make the sounds etc.

If learners have literacy issues, the above activities could potentially be done with pictures rather than words:



And if one of the words in the pair you want to use is not very frequent (e.g. played/blade), you could still do the activity but just write the frequent word on the board and ask ‘Same or Different?’

A more contextualised task, which would make the relationship to listening clearer, might be to select a phrase or short section from something they have listened to which contains a lot of the two sounds (not necessarily in minimal pairs) and ask them to mark the two phonemes.

E.g. ‘Looking after rabbits is really easy’ might work well for /r/ and /l/.

Individualised work

Clearly working on minimal pairs is much trickier with a multi-lingual class. As mentioned earlier, there are some vowel sounds which a lot of people find tricky. Alternatively,  learners could be given different sounds to work on, according to needs. There are now quite a few websites  (for example www.shiporsheep.com) where learners can listen to minimal pairs, so this kind of differentiated activity could be set as homework.


Filed under Differentiation, Exploiting authentic recordings and videos, Pronunciation

Ways to exploit news articles with minimal preparation

Why use news items?
In a recent post I talked about the idea of narrow reading and passed on a suggestion from Scott Thornbury that learners could read a series of articles about a news story they were interested in, thus exposing themselves to the same vocabulary several times (and hopefully thus retaining some of it).
Obviously another advantage to this approach is that learners would be able to choose for themselves what they wanted to read. It seems obvious that this may well be more motivating than something the teacher has chosen for the whole class.
And finally, reading news items is pretty authentic, mirroring what learners may do in their first language, and may encourage extensive reading in L2.
However, there are several potential problems with using news articles.
1 Finding and selecting articles
Students may not be very good at finding appropriate sources of articles, or know how to select articles which are at the right kind of level of difficulty/challenge.
Obviously what makes a good source for news items will very much depend on your teaching context and the level of your students. There are specific sites online with news adapted for lower level learners (such as BBC Learning English), and the style of some newspapers seems to be clearer than others (I find the Telegraph quite good for learners, though it wouldn’t be my personal reading choice). I also rather like happynews.com, which ‘scoops’ news articles from various different sources, but guarantees that all the stories are positive (for when you don’t want a worthy but depressing lesson).
So, either point your students in the direction of suitable sources, or you could select a number of different articles and let them choose which they feel is most interesting or appealing. This can work well with the kind of newspaper which has a number of small articles on the same page. Mike Harrison gives a good example of this in his blog here
2 News articles are notoriously difficult to read.
Before students even start reading, headlines can be impossible to decipher. They often use puns and are frequently extremely culturally bound. This is particularly true of tabloid newspapers, which you might think would use simpler language, but are in fact about the hardest to decipher because of this. A headline chosen pretty much at random from today’s Mirror:
Ruff table manners: Rottweiler needs surgery after swallowing five-inch spoon
Although the picture would certainly help (!),  to understand this you need to understand that ‘ruff’ can be the sound a dog makes when barking, and that ‘rough’ also means not very polite. You need to know what ‘table manners’ are and what a ‘rottweiler’ is. You also need to understand the phrase ‘needs surgery’ and, for a full understanding, know how long five inches is! And that’s before we start to look at the syntax and who (or what) actually swallowed the spoon. Not too difficult in this case, but there are some famous examples, such as:
Police help dog bite victim
The text itself is also likely to be very dense and contain a lot of elision and unusual syntax.
As Bermejo (2000) puts it:
‘Journalistic stories are complex and ambitious, they tell new events, but they also include quotations, background and consequences of those events.., so editors very often have to package the information in a way that is sometimes forced and can be difficult to understand.’
If we are going to work with news articles, students need some help and training in understanding the features of the discourse.
For example, the headline is frequently confusing, but there is often a subheadline which makes things clearer. E.g.:
Max had to have an emergency operation after wolfing down a strawberry… and the spoon it was served on.
And then the first paragraph usually summarises the story:
A fruit-loving dog had to have surgery after wolfing down a strawberry… along with the spoon it was served on.
Max the rottweiler had to have an emergency operation after getting the five-inch teaspoon lodged in his stomach.
This first paragraph nearly always contains what journalists call the 5 Ws (who, what, when, where and why). In his 2003 article, Antepara makes the point that getting students to try and find the 5 Ws (or as many as possible), just using the headline and first paragraph, is a way of leading them into the rest of the text, which usually just adds detail to these main points.
We can also help learners to decode typical newspaper syntax. As we can see in the example above, a very common structure is before/after + ing. This can cause confusion because the subject isn’t directly stated. Some practice with simple sentence transformation can help learners:
After he wolfed down the spoon he had to have surgery.
After wolfing down the spoon he had to have surgery.
Another common feature is the use of reference devices. Obviously we find these in all texts, but because of the concise way newspaper texts are written, it can be particularly hard to follow the chain of reference. For example:
The 10-year-old’s owner, Annette Robertshaw, of Wakefield, West Yorkshire, said her brother had been visiting her and was eating some strawberries when Max took a shine to them.
He offered Max one on a teaspoon but was caught totally by surprise when the dog gulped down both items.
I think a lot of students would assume that ‘He’ at the beginning of the second paragraph referred back to the dog, because Max has just been mentioned, when it actually refers right back to ‘her brother’.
A couple of ideas for working on reference, which don’t require any preparation:
– Getting learners to underline reference words and then draw arrows back to what they refer to.
– Asking learners to rewrite texts with as little reference as possible and then give them to a partner to put the reference back in.
And, as you will have noticed, there are also a lot of idioms (especially in the tabloids). With a short article like this one, you can ask students to underline any idioms they find (wolf down, gulp down, take a shine to something) and look them up. They could then try and rewrite the article (or a section of it) without any idioms, put the idioms in a list below and, again, ask a partner to try and rewrite the text or section.
3 Working with authentic news articles can be extremely labour intensive.
Teachers often spend a lot of time thinking exercises to exploit news articles. And, because they date, the material can rarely be used again.
Furthermore, if every student has been reading something different, the task of exploiting all these texts can seem impossible.
One solution is to provide a generic task:
A good example of this would be the 5Ws task outlined above. This could be set for any news article, enabling learners to work simultaneously on completely different texts.
Alternatively, you could create a generic worksheet. Heather Buchanan has a good example of this, though designed for listening to the news. For example, you could start by asking learners to identify the type of news it is (human interest, politics, sport, finance). Then ask about the 5 Ws and finally ask for some kind of personal reaction.
The other solution is for tasks to be learner generated:
We have already seen some examples of this in the second section above. Other ideas might include:
-With a group of very short articles you could give a pair of learners one article each with the headline missing and ask them to write a headline. All the headlines and articles are mixed up and learners then work together to match them. A further stage might be to then match with the original headlines.
-Ask learners to choose, say, no more than 5 sentences which seem to carry the main points of the article. This can then be checked by a peer (while you monitor).
– Ask learners to rewrite a short article, changing some of the information to make it a lie (as outrageous as they wish. For example, Max might swallow a five foot spoon… A partner then reads it and spots the lies.
Essentially, try to rethink any activity you might devise for a text and see if the learners can do it themselves. This way they work harder, you have less preparation and it’s all personalised and learner centred.


Filed under Exploiting authentic reading materials, Vocabulary

Assessment for Learning: a new way to meet individual learner needs?

They say that there is nothing new under the sun (especially not in teaching?) but the notion of Assessment for Learning (as opposed to assessment of learning)is a big buzzword in mainstream education in the UK and there are plenty of ideas which we can apply to ESOL and ELT.

The idea of AfL originated from a booklet by Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black, Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment. In this, and subsequent books and papers, they focus on four main ways of helping students to become more independent learners and to individualise learning:

  •  Questioning techniques
  • Feedback methods
  • Sharing criteria
  • Self  and peer assessment

Questioning techniques

I suspect that questioning is something which the average ESOL/ELT teacher already knows more about than Wiliam and Black assume. In my experience, a lot of teaching in our field(s) takes place through asking the right questions, whereas they seem to think that most teachers are asking closed questions to check knowledge. Having said that, I think it is still an area where further development may be useful.

Some approaches/activities you could try:

  • Opening up ideas by asking other students to comment on what has been said, rather than commenting on it yourself.
  • Bouncing questions around, so you nominate one student to answer another’s question.
  • Get students to put up their hands to ask a question, rather than to answer one.
  • Ask students to write down questions at the end of a lesson about what still confuses them. These could go into a box for you to look at when planning the next lesson, or they could be redistributed for small groups to answer.
  • Ask why rather than just accepting an answer. This is particularly important, I think, when going through the answers to, say, a reading comprehension or a gapfill.

And my personal long time favourite: increasing wait time after you have asked a question. In Assessment for Learning: Putting it into practice, Black et al report that teachers who increased wait time found that:

–          Answers were longer

–          Failure to respond decreased

–          Responses were more confident

–          Students challenged and/or improved the answers of other students

–          More alternative explanations were offered.

Feedback methods

This refers to both giving students feedback on their work and on getting feedback as to how well each student is doing.

In terms of the first category, one of the big points made by AfL is that writing comments on students’ work is much more effective than grades. In fact, their research showed that a group of students given only comments improved noticeably, whereas the other two groups given either grades only or both comments and grades, did not.  Of course, the comments have to be helpful and specific about exactly what the student has to do to improve.

In terms of getting feedback on how each student is doing, there are two basic themes. One, which will be familiar I am sure, is getting students to work in pairs and groups so that the teacher can monitor and assess. The other may be less familiar and involves a few nice little techniques:

  • Using miniwhiteboards for students to write answers on and then hold up. If everyone is facing the front, peers will not be able to see who has written what, but the teacher can.
  • Giving each student laminated A,B and C cards, so that they can hold up the answers to multiple choice questions in the same way.
  • Using signals to indicate to the teacher how well they feel they have understood. These could be  ‘traffic light’ red, amber or green cards (green for I am sure I have got this to red I haven’t a clue what you’re on about

Sharing criteria

In the ELT/ESOL context, the idea of sharing the criteria you use may not be that new. As a reminder though, some of the ideas in AfL may be useful:

  • Using models of what you want students to achieve. This obviously applies to writing, but could also apply to speaking, with recordings of native speakers or more proficient students doing the same task. These models can be analysed by the students, using the criteria.
  • Letting students decide on what they think the criteria for assessment should be, or negotiating it with them.

Self and peer assessment

Again, this is something which I think is quite common in ESOL/ELT classrooms, but it is given a lot of emphasis in AfL. Possible ideas:

  •  Two stars and a wish (may be better for Yls). Students peer assess using two stars to say two good things about the work and a wish to identify something which could be improved (further)
  • Students identify what they think is their best piece of work, and say why.
  • Using learning journals to set targets and self evaluate.

If you wish to find out more about AfL, either of the publications mentioned above would be a good place to start. I’d be very interested to hear any comments on any of these approaches, and whether this kind of approach is popular in your context (and of course why or why not 😉 )


Filed under Differentiation

Simple ways to differentiate materials for mixed level classes

I love this picture..they’re all eggs, but just look at the variety. And it’s the same in any class.

Differentiation can be defined as:

“….identifying and addressing the different needs, interests and abilities of all learners to give them the best possible chance of achieving their learning goals.”

(Standards Unit, Improving differentiation in business education, DfES 2004)

Differentiation is a key issue in ESOL, or teaching English to students who now live in an English speaking country. This is because, in the UK at least, classes are often extremely mixed in terms of level, and students often have what is known as a ‘spiky’ profile  (they may be pretty proficient at speaking and listening, for example, but struggle with reading and writing).

In ELT, differentiation is more often referred to as ‘teaching mixed ability’ or ‘mixed levels’. But, whatever, we call, it, the fact is that no class is ever completely homogeneous, and we all need to be thinking as much as we can about how to meet the individual needs of the students.

That said, I don’t believe in providing different worksheets for all the students and getting them to work on these individually or even in pairs. Unless the class is very small, this just stretches the teacher too thin, and it is often pretty uninspiring for the students as well.

Let’s look at some ways in which we can differentiate without having to spend hours on preparation.

1 Differentiation by outcome

Some people use differentiated outcomes on their lesson plans. For example:

By the end of the lesson all students will be able to.. most will be able to..some will be able to..

This seems quite popular in ESOL, but I personally am not hugely keen on this. It is a reminder that what you are teaching is not what it being learnt. However, it is basically a deficit model.

I would argue that it is more effective (and encouraging) to help students to assess themselves against their personal standard. One way of achieving this is to move away where possible from summative assessment towards more formative assessment. This is a big talking point in British schools at the moment. Basically, this challenges the idea that the best way to test students is by comparing them with each other. This sets up an atmosphere of competition and leads lower achieving students to conclude that they are failing. It also encourages stronger students to rigidly produce only what will get them the highest mark.

Better, surely to encourage students to self assess and to set their own targets or checklists of competencies together with the teacher?

Having promised you less preparation, I have to admit that setting individual targets, does take time and effort but, provided, that a sensible approach is taken (i.e. not asking learners who barely speak English to fill in a 6 page Individual Learning Plan), it can, I think, be well worth it.

2. Differentiation by teaching method

The activities we choose to use can also differentiate well. An activity which involves active learning and group or pair work is likely to differentiate more effectively because

–          Students can work at their own level.

–          Students can support each other and learn from each other.

Most of us have experimented with putting stronger students with weaker ones and, it has to be said, the results can vary quite a bit. Sometimes it works really well. The stronger student consolidates their knowledge by explaining to the weaker student and the weaker student feels supported.

Sometimes, however, the stronger student dominates or resents the role and/or the weaker student feels embarrassed or says nothing.

Mixing things up so that the same pairings aren’t used all the time certainly helps, but there are also some techniques you can use, such as Scribe, which I first saw in Jill Hadfield’s excellent book, Classroom Dynamics. When carrying out a small group discussion, appoint a scribe, or note taker for the group. They should only listen and take notes. After the discussion, they will feed back to the whole class.

If the strongest student is the scribe, this will prevent them from dominating, but still give them an important role and a chance to shine at the end. If a weaker student takes this role, the pressure is taken off them to produce language spontaneously, but they can prepare something to say at the end, which will provide a sense of achievement.

Questioning techniques can also be modified to provide better differentiation. Give students enough time and space to answer and nominate, by asking the question before you name the student, so it doesn’t always fall back to stronger students. Consider how easy the question is and don’t choose students who can’t answer. Use monitoring while students are working in pairs or groups to identify who can answer which question.

Ask different types of questions. A useful model is Bloom’s mastery and developmental tasks (Bloom’s taxonomy) Mastery tasks can be mastered by all learners, they are straightforward- you might ask a learner to describe something or define something. A developmental task is more stretching and requires a deep understanding. These kinds of questions might ask the students to judge or critically appraise for example.

3 Differentiation by task.

And finally, most tasks can be designed to provide either extra support, or extension to challenge more able students. This doesn’t have to mean completely new activities, just a tweak here and there.

The table below gives some examples:

Activity Type Extension activities Support strategies
Reading Select 3 new items of vocabulary, look them up in their dictionaries and write them up on the board, with definitions.Write 3 questions about the text. These can then be given to another early finisher to answer and then passed back to the original student for marking. Pre-teach vocabulary students will need to do the task and leave it on the board.Activate their previous knowledge of the topic before reading.Give students the answers in a jumbled order, with a few distractors.Make open questions multiple choice.

Break the text into sections with questions after each section and give the option of only reading 1 or 2 sections.


Listening When students listen for the second time to confirm their answers, give some optional extra questions as well.When taking answers on a true/false activity, ask why/why not? Pre-teach vocabulary and activate knowledge as above.Give students a chance to discuss answers before feeding back to the class. Monitor and play again if necessary.Give students the tapescript on second listening.In a gap-fill, provide some of the words needed.


Writing Make use of creative tasks that students can do at their own level.Use a correction code to give students a chance to self correct.Increase the word limit. Give a model or example before they start writing.Correct the draft with the student or in pairs before rewriting.Reduce the word limit.
Speaking Ask students to justify their opinionsPair higher level students together so they can really stretch themselves. Give students time to rehearse or plan their ideas.Pair weak and strong together.Elicit and practise the language they will be using beforehand

And, going back to the second point,  we can also aid differentiation by providing tasks with more open outcomes, so that students can do the same task, but each at their own level of ability.

Obviously none of these ideas is going to provide every student in the class with a 1-2-1 tailor-made course. However, I do think they can go some way towards helping to address the different needs, interests and abilities of the learners.

Please feel free to comment and add your own ideas. All gratefully received!

If you found this post useful, why not check out my e-book, The CELTA Teaching Compendium, a quick easy reference to all the teaching skills required for CELTA. 



Filed under Differentiation